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Legends in Our Own Minds

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My father was a heckuva teacher; I have the testimony of any number of his former students, and my experience in the time after he died back in 2011 showed me the life-changing impact he (along with his father, both of whom devoted their lives to helping students overcome dyslexia) had over his career. As with many teachers, I think, his students received the best of him.

The annals of education--and the memories of most everyone I know--are filled with great teachers, the ones who challenged and inspired and above all loved, each in his or her special way, their students for a generation or more. Many of us have that special teacher, The One, who "got" us, who helped us move along the path of life more than any other. They entered their schoolrooms each day with a song in their hearts, sometimes unheard and sometimes belted out, and created in those rooms cultures in which learning, and growing, happened.

And like my father, who was head of a school and thus by definition no shrinking violet, most of these teachers lived and died known but to their own pupils and, I hope, their families. What they thought about their work, how they viewed their profession, how they viewed the educational changes that they saw over their lifetimes (perhaps not so rapid or spectacular as in recent years, but still vast), and how they understood the very nature of education--no one really knew except perhaps a close colleague or two. They strove and passed away, except for those so fortunate as to have turned out a book or a journal article, pretty well unknown beyond their own school communities.

Fast forward to 2013. Right now we have thousands of teachers thinking out loud for a wide-open audience every day. Personal blogs, multi-author blogs, microblogs, online publications, conferences and webinars tweeted and live-blogged, and even Twitter chats have turned teacherworld, for those inclined to put themselves out there, into a vast buzzing hive of perspectives shared in the moment. We share our thoughts on teaching all the time; we build PLNs like our forefathers built bowling leagues. We have rock star bloggers and Twitter legends who have parlayed their ability to write thoughtfully and compellingly about their schools, their practice, their hopes, and their dreams into significant identities as gurus and pundits.

I won't lie. I'm at least on the cusp of this, and more teachers and school leaders around the country know who I am than ever knew the name of my father or grandfather, arguably worthier men and greater educators than I. I got into this more or less accidentally, asking questions on a listserv and then finding myself invited to write about some things my school was doing. I liked writing about my school and our work, and I found myself writing more and more, moving onto bigger questions. My efforts have been, I figure, good for my school, a place in which I believe like Red Sox fans believe in Fenway Park.

But it all raises an interesting question, which is the role of the blogger and presenter who becomes a persona in the profession. Most of us, I think, work extra hard to make sure that what we do reflects well on our schools, but inevitably we find ourselves addressing an issue about which the school has no, er, position; we take positions, anyhow, and hope they're more or less in alignment with where the school is headed.

Case in point: For some years my school, which was founded as an old-line progressive school in 1920, struggled to build a compelling, comprehensible message around the word "progressive." It's a good and honorable word, but even educators can't agree on what it means nowadays. I thought I saw a through-line between John Dewey and what we were doing, and so I tried to rehabilitate the P word via a blog in which I wrote about aspects of that line. A few years back, it became clear that the challenges of presenting ourselves as a progressive school, which required constant explanation of what we meant by that, were too much; it made much more sense for us to focus on telling the story of what we actually do rather than giving endless vocabulary lessons. I let the blog tail off; I still believe in the New Progressivism as a concept, but it wasn't working for my school.

One suspects that sometimes the big names in the blogosphere may stir up the green-eyed monster of envy in colleagues, and I have heard tales of intramural awkwardness. Inasmuch as independent schools are market driven, I guess the response is that when a school boasts a digital star, everyone in the school benefits, perhaps even materially; stronger brand = more applications = more students = increased job security. It's a tenuous argument and maybe even a little icky (mostly because as teachers we're a little uncomfortable acknowledging these things), but it's a true one.

But I wish my father had had a blog. He never fully warmed up to the computer, but he never ran out of opinions on all things educational. His ideas were pretty interesting, and often rather against the grain; he was Old School and mighty proud of it. (For example, he could never figure out why people in schools these days go to so many meetings or accept that a school might need more than a headmaster and a bookkeeper to run it; my explanations fell on deaf ears.) I would love to get the tweet telling me that a new post was up on his blog. The Old Curmudgeon (who loved his school and his students) would be a rock star.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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